UC Berkeley alumni reflect on Berkeley’s LGBTQ+ history

Photo of pride parade
Celine Bellegarda/Senior Staff
Before LGBTQ+ campus groups were founded, the city of Berkeley did not have a strong, cohesiveLGBTQ+ community of its own. Several campus alumni reflected on this as they recounted the history.

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In 1969, UC Berkeley’s Students for Gay Power, later known as the Gay Student Union, or GSU, became the second openly gay student group in the country, later extending an invitation to former California governor Ronald Reagan for the campus’s first gay student dance.

Before the Stonewall riots marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, and even in the time following, members of the LGBTQ+ community existed within a “hidden subculture” in the Bay Area, according to Robert Plantz, former president of the GSU from 1969 through 1970.

“We knew about Stonewall in New York. We knew that the climate in most of the rest of the country was downright hostile. The US Supreme Court upheld sodomy laws in states until 2003,” Plantz said in an email. “We sprang from the gay liberation movement that was just starting in the Bay Area.”

Before the founding of campus groups including the GSU and the Gay Liberation Front in 1969, the city did not have a strong, cohesive LGBTQ+ community of its own, according to a paper in the University Archives.

Amelia Jackson, who authored the paper, noted that many individuals preferred to engage with groups in San Francisco and Oakland. Many LGBTQ+ people in Berkeley led “double (lives),” often spending their evenings trying to meet other young, LGBTQ+ people in larger cities.

“I didn’t know any other LGBT students at the time. In fact, I was just coming out, so I was just beginning to understand myself as a gay man,” Plantz said in the email. “Our GSU was the first time most of us got to see that there were others like us who were just regular people.”

On the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a series of demonstrations that began when patrons at a gay bar in New York City fought back against a police raid, a group in San Francisco marched for LGBTQ+ rights. Their march formed a tradition now celebrated as the San Francisco Pride parade, according to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

In 1973, the Pacific Center for Human Growth, the third-oldest LGBTQ+ community center in the nation, opened in Berkeley. The center continues to provide mental health and support services for LGBTQ+ Bay Area residents.

Berkeley was also the first city to recognize a day for bisexual Pride, according to a Berkeleyside article. The City Council voted in 2012 to proclaim Sept. 23 Bisexual Visibility Day.

“It was a time of great fear. We were fully in the AIDS crisis,” Darek DeFreece, campus alumnus and former president of the Cal Alumni Association, said in an email. “But, it was also a time of celebration. We were gaining acceptance and because of the strong voices in our community, who were demanding action and recognition, we were starting to make deep and meaningful strides towards equality.”

Although California’s ban on same-sex marriage was not overturned until 2008, according to The New York Times, Berkeley became the first city to extend benefits for public employees to domestic partners in 1984, according to a letter written by former council member Darryl Moore.

Berkeley City Council was also the first city council in the United States to endorse marriage equality for same-sex couples, according to a letter written by former council members Kriss Worthington, Jesse Arreguín and Darryl Moore.

Plantz said in the email there is still work to do in the gay rights movement.

He noted that more than 74 million Americans voted in favor of the Republican Party platform in 2020, which sought to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in favor of marriage equality.

“I feel like my work in helping to start the (GSU) helped a lot of people to become more accepting of themselves and to lead happier, more fulfilling lives,” Plantz said in the email. “I think this improves the entire society, not just the LGBTQ people who are directly affected.”

Contact Emma Taila at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @emmataila.